“I’ve shot birds over a good many dogs I cared a lot about,” my friend Jim said to me from across the log we were sitting on. “And it was always rough when they got old. But Blue, here, is the worst. Much as I’ve tried during the past few years, I can’t picture myself hunting without him.”
Jim paused, then head-gestured at the old pointer stretched at his feet—the boney, gray-muzzled dog’s chest rose and fell heavily. “He’s been a wonderful partner, and I wish he could give out with his nose full of birds at sundown on the last day of the finest season we’ve had. But that can’t happen now.”
Jim let out a long, throaty breath and added, “The next few hunts are Blue’s last, and I want him to have them for himself. I’m going to let him do whatever he can, whenever he’s able, for as long as he can go without hurting himself. The birds we work this month will be just for him.”
My friend Jim had reached the point in his partnership with Blue that all gun-dog owners must eventually confront; the realization they’ll never again hunt with a treasured dog. I suspect Jim had been thinking about it for at least a year; he was too experienced a dog man not to have been aware of Blue’s declining physical condition. What took time wasn’t Jim’s assessment of the dog, but his coming to grips with the emotional reality of that assessment. For years, he’d done everything possible to extend Blue’s working career. But he only delayed the inevitable, and perhaps not even that to any degree.
When To Say When
In an earlier column (October 2002) about how to keep an old campaigner in the field, I wrote that we should … “feed an aging dog wisely, give it regular and controlled exercise, provide it with warm and comfortable digs, shorten hunts and lengthen rest periods, stay attuned to its condition and make accommodations to its slipping skills … give your dog common sense care, hunt it as long as it’s reasonable and safe, then recognize when to call it quits.”
To be sure, we can’t stop the progression of old age. No matter what we do to enhance a dog’s life, a day will come when we have to say, “That’s enough.” And the key word is “we.” As I’ve emphasized many times, a good dog’s body will wear out, but not its “heart,” which means that in the end the call to full retirement—tough as it is to make—will likely be up to us.
Usually, such a call isn’t arbitrary; it’s necessary to safeguard a dog’s remaining quantity and quality of time. Retirement becomes judgmental when we try to camouflage our old-timer’s true, permanent condition—when we render opinions that fit our emotional needs rather than our dog’s reality. And therein is the hard part—trying to separate, as honestly as we can, a dog’s physical status from our own emotion-based demands. Such assessments are especially difficult when an elderly dog doesn’t look particularly old. But a dog’s superficial appearance can be deceptive, isn’t always an indicator of diminished abilities and, at best, is only one factor in arriving at a retirement decision. There’s no upside to these decisions, but in fairness to dogs that have been major players in our lives for a dozen years, they’re decisions that must be made.
Like all sportsmen who have owned dogs for quite a few years, I’ve had to make my share of final-hunt calls. None of them were easy, and with a particular dog or two I probably pushed field time too far—a common occurrence among hunters who aren’t ready to admit their dogs’ working days are over, though the evidence is obvious. Some dogs make the retirement decision for their owners—they either can’t go or, in a few cases, make it clear they don’t want to go. Typically, however, that’s not the way it works because elderly gun dogs have ambitions that are greater than their physical capabilities. Given that, how do we look beyond a dog’s appearance and desire, how do we judge that its time afield is over and what are the broader signals of when to hang up a gun dog’s collar for good?
For the most part, the signs that retirement is imminent are exaggerated versions of the same symptoms that signaled the onset and progression of old age. Old dogs usually suffer from a reduction in sharpness of hearing and sight, and exhibit an overall slowing down and moderation of hunting style. Of themselves, these aren’t problems that force a dog from the field. Rather, they’re indicators of a general condition of old age, which typically occur in conjunction with more dramatic physical symptoms such as excessive lameness after workouts, an inability or reluctance to hunt for more than short periods and obvious exhaustion after limited, modest exercise. Aged dogs are often unduly, even severely, stressed by weather conditions—heat, cold, humidity—they would’ve handled easily a few years earlier. Any elderly gun dog that’s impacted by relatively moderate weather, shows a considerable loss of mobility or otherwise physically struggles in the field is a candidate for retirement.
If your old-timer, assuming it’s in comparatively fair health without serious internal problems, has difficulty trotting up or down a hill, stumbles with any frequency, walks to bird retrieves and avoids all but the most open cover, in all likelihood it’s time to call it quits. If, after exercise, you have to carry your dog from a vehicle to wherever it stays, that’s a powerful indicator of the inevitable. If a dog is too lame to walk to its bed, especially if it remains partially disabled into the following day, that dog shouldn’t be hunting.
Because dogs are as variable in old age as they are in youth, there’s no all-encompassing list of symptoms that accurately tells us when to remove a given dog from the field. Judgments usually come down to a years-long understanding of our own dogs, common sense in using that understanding and our willingness to admit they can no longer hack it. Whether we choose to acknowledge it, we know what’s normal for our dogs and what isn’t. Think about it this way: Which is worse for both you and your old dog—retiring it at an appropriate, safe point or watching it struggle, and possibly injure itself because it’s unable to do the job that for years it did so well?
Easing Into It
A good many dog-savvy hunters begin the retirement process a year or more before it’s physically necessary. Rather than abruptly saying “that’s it,” they gradually phase a dog out of the field by reducing the number of its hunts, shortening its time afield and using it only under special conditions or in less-demanding cover. There’s considerable wisdom, for both hunter and dog, in a gradual adjustment to full retirement. Of course, this approach assumes you have at least one other gun dog.
One last point: It’s not the end of the line when you retire a partner of a decade or more. Just because a dog is physically incapable of hunting doesn’t mean your relationship is over. You can and should continue to share your life with it. Old hunters can make very good companion dogs, and a surprising number of them seem to thrive in the role. Blue, my friend Jim’s pointer, was one of those dogs.
After Blue’s final hunting season, Jim brought him into the house to live, setting him up with a cushy bed near a woodstove. When Blue wasn’t sleeping, he was with Jim in his truck or when he cared for his other dogs or for slow, easy walks. More than a year had passed when Jim told me that, oddly enough, Blue seemed to be enjoying his new job as a non-hunting companion.
“I swear,” Jim said, “Blue doesn’t seem to care that he isn’t hunting. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but he actually seems relieved when he stays behind or sleeps in the truck while I hunt another dog.” Perhaps Blue was relieved. Perhaps, in his own way, he knew his days of bird work were over and it was time to take it easy.